Author gives voice to mime Marceau
In college, Shawn Wen had an inspirational phase of making a sort of “art of the impossible,” hoping to fuse the world of mime and radio. While conducting interviews with mime artists, she also recorded their performances, intending to find a way to put the silent acts onto the airwaves.
The idea developed out of a rabbit hole that Wen, now a writer and a producer at Youth Radio, fell into after learning about Marcel Marceau, the world’s most famous mime and subject of her new book, “A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause.” Her introduction to Marceau came from reading his obituary in the New York Times: icon of mime, renowned artist of the 20th century, Holocaust survivor, fighter in the French Resistance.
“It had me really thinking — what a way to be a person,” Wen says. “I think when you’re 20 you’re kind of actively figuring out what are active models of adulthood that (you) could take on. I was actively thinking at the time, how can you be a fully rounded person and also be an artist?”
Marceau himself may have never had an answer. The mime artist became the singular face of his art form (his character Bip became the prototype for how mimes are now conceptualized) and toured worldwide incessantly for decades, but also carried what Wen describes as an “emotional impoverishment,” partly characterized by his perpetual absence from three exwives and four children.
Wen’s radio idea never took, though it did provide intensive research and early drafts for “A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause,” which chronicles the life and work of Marceau in lyric essay form.
Yet Wen’s work is in no way an effort to revitalize a bygone art form, nor does it serve to memorialize the preeminent mime artist. “I think that people assume that I love mime or that I love Marcel Marceau, and I can understand why,” Wen says. “That’s a very easy assumption. I wrote a book about him. But that’s not really the case.”
Instead, Marceau was a case study for Wen’s personal queries of selfhood — what it means to be an adult, what it means to be a good person, or an artist, or both. It was also an exercise in form and its limits and capabilities.
“I realized, as much as this is a book about mime, this ends up also being about language,” Wen says. “It’s a book about what writing can do or not do. What kind of truth can your body express in ways that words will always fail (to do)? But also, what can words do that your body can’t? The more that I wrote, the more I realized that words also have movement, words have texture, words have a way of gesturing, much like my arms can.”
Wen readily admits the ambiguity of her descriptions, but such evasiveness feels appropriate for a book about someone we come to understand impressionistically. Her lyric essays observe the life of Marceau from slanted angles: traces of performance scenes, brief excerpts of his views drawn from interviews, lists of Marceau’s gleaming collections of worldly possessions whose accumulation reflects an emptiness.
The terse, often poetic vignettes leave a quality of hauntedness appropriate to someone like Marceau.
“I do think he’s a tragic figure,” Wen says. “I don’t have a ton of affection for him, but I know a lot of men who are like him. I want him to be someone who — you can appreciate his greatness, but you don’t know if you exactly like him. To me, he’s a juicy character.”
Shawn Wen wrote about mime Marcel Marceau after reading his obituary.